Fact, Fiction or Something in Between? ‘The Lifespan of a Fact’ Asks But Doesn’t Provide Easy Answers

(Lindsay Crouse in Gloucester Stage Company’s ‘The Lifespan of a Fact – Photos by Jason Grow)

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Every so often, a play so resonates with its time that the audience can’t stop thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. “The Lifespan of a Fact,” at the Gloucester Stage Theatre through September 22, is such a work, and theatergoers should flock to see it for its thought-provoking, razor-sharp script and spot-on production.

The premise is simple enough. It is three days before a magazine’s publication deadline. Emily Penrose (Lindsay Crouse), its ambitious and demanding editor-in-chief, has just received a cutting-edge story about a teenager who committed suicide by jumping off the roof of a Las Vegas casino. She wants to bump the planned cover story (a humdrum piece about Congressional wives) and replace it with this for two reasons: to raise the prestigious but stodgy magazine’s profile (and boost sales) and to safeguard her job. First, however, it must undergo fact checking and there is only the weekend to do it.

Enter Jim Fingal (Derek Speedy, who really did just graduate from Harvard University), a young, equally ambitious intern and recent Harvard grad. He attacks his assignment like the future of journalism depends on it. His dogged tenacity would impress Sam Spade. Before long, he has amassed binders and exhibits that look more like a Perry Mason criminal trial notebook than fact checking for a 13-page essay.

(Mickey Solis, Crouse, Derek Speedy)

The ticking clock does not diminish Fingal’s resolve to dot every i and cross every t. His phone attempts to clear up inaccuracies with the author, John D’Agata (Mickey Solis) only get him a lecture on the difference between an “essay” (where D’Agata believes there’s wiggle room to alter the facts to fit the “rhythm” of the writing) and an “article” (which Fingal believes embodies the holy journalistic trinity of accuracy, truth and integrity).

D’Agata sees the world as gray. By calling his piece an essay, he assumes he has free rein to cast a wide net around the facts. “You have to stop treating me like a journalist. I am an essayist. I nudge the facts,” he declares. To Fingal, there is a bright line between black and white. Every discrepancy, no matter how trivial, is a journalistic capital offense. “I won’t alter the facts to fit some music you hear in your head,” he parries.

Penrose watches Fingal’s progress (or lack thereof) via a shared drive and her anxiety increases as the hours until publication decrease. When D’Agata calls her from his Las Vegas home to inform her that her fact-checker is asleep on his couch, she drops her laissez-faire attitude and catches the red eye out there to literally take these two bulls by their horns.

(Solis, Crouse)

By the time she arrives, the groundwork has been laid for the play’s second half, where the characters’ personalities, motives and principles clash. Their divergent positions about whether the piece as written should be published reflect the fault lines of their interests: creative freedom (D’Agata), commercial value (Penrose) and journalistic integrity/accuracy (Fingal). Their diatribes are thunderous and run the gamut from comic to passionate to preaching. These interchanges are the meat of the production and the questions raised is the stuff that will swirl long after the curtain has come down.

Is there such a creature, for example, as “creative fiction?” Where is the line between editing and fact-checking? Which dictates: story or accuracy? Does “not correct” equal “wrong?” What constitutes “good faith effort?” Are facts negotiable? Where do ethics come in? And editorial judgment? Is credible the same as true? Is there an acceptable margin of error in journalism? If so, what is it?

(Crouse, Speedy)

Weisman’s direction equally milks the comic and the profound and the set and sound lend a slick contemporary feel. The three actors remain in character throughout the 90-minute intermission-less performance. Speedy, as Fingal, quietly controls the pace as his nerdy fact-finder eventually bares his teeth and shows his nettle. His ease and grace on stage is reminiscent of Matt Damon’s nuanced performance in “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” Solis is all bristle and sinew as D’Agata, wildly and combatively confrontational.  Crouse, the weakest link among the trio, plays Penrose as strident but without depth. It’s hard to tell whether this is intentional, and her character suffers credibility as a result.

At the play’s end, the trio may not have reached consensus about whether the essay should be published, but they have managed something that is sorely lacking in today’s polarized and venomous environment: they have listened to each other, they have understood each other, and they have respectfully agreed to disagree. What a concept.

‘The Lifespan of a Fact –Written by Jeremy Karaken, David Murrell and Gordon Farrell based on the book by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal; Directed by Sam Weisman; Lighting Design by Marcella Barbeau; Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Composer/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, Scenic Design by J. Michael Griggs. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through September 22.For tickets and information, visit: https://gloucesterstage.com/

Advertisements

Gloucester Stage’s ‘Ben Butler’ Is Much More Than A Historical Comedy

Photo_1_GSC-BENBUTLER-0004

L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson. All Photos by Jason Grow.

By Shelley A. Sackett

On May 23, 1861, smack in the middle of the Civil War, the citizens of Virginia voted overwhelmingly to secede from the United States. The next day, General Benjamin Butler, commander of Union-held Fort Monroe, VA, finds himself in an unusual moral and legal pickle. Three escaped slaves have showed up at the fort’s doorstep seeking sanctuary. Under the Fugitive Slave Act, settled federal law since its 1850 enactment, General Butler is required to return them to their owner.

Yet Butler wears more than just his military hat. A silver-tongued lawyer with a reputation as a champion of labor, abolition and naturalized citizens, he is reticent to follow the letter of the law and send the slaves back to the Confederacy. Are they not, after all, people seeking asylum from an oppressive regime? For Butler, this goes way beyond issues of legal or military might; it is a matter that goes straight to the core of who he is (or, is not) as a moral human being. At the same time, he is understandably reticent to rock the boat and sink his own career. Even scarier yet is the idea of leaving his fingerprints all over an incident that could affect the outcome of the war.

 

Photo_13-GSC-BENBUTLER-4140

L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

The complicated matter becomes even more so when Butler actually meets Shepard Mallory, the slave who has demanded an audience to plead his case in person. Despite the stark black and white differences in their skin, station and status, the two soon realize they have more in common than not.

Both are expert verbal sparrers, and recognize in the other a familiar spunk and intellect. Both are, at their core, compassionate and humanistic. And bought are caught in the razor-sharp teeth of the cog that fuels the madness that has torn the United States in two.

If this sounds like the stuff of a heart-wrenching, angst-laden script, think again, for playwright Richard Strand has turned the tragic on its head. His lively comedy drives home all the important messages – that slavery is evil, that all humans are created as equals, and that war is bad, for starters – but clothes them in clever repartees and endless rounds of (mostly) delightful verbal gymnastics.

For it turns out that Shepard Mallory is no ordinary man. The runaway slave is literate, literary and able to run legal circles around General Butler who, in truth, is much more of a lawyer than military man. As they joust and brawl, they are shocked and then delighted to discover that they have each finally met their match.

 

Photo_24-GSC-BENBUTLER-4562

L to R: Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor

 

And this is where Strand’s script – flawed and bloated though it is – is both brilliant and brave. As Butler and Mallory get to know each other, the world’s artifice that separates them melts away. They become kindred spirits, united in their revulsion at the perversity that is at the rotten core of slavery. Strand shows the audience what “all men are created equal” really looks like. This is infinitely more effective and more powerful than a chest-beating diatribe against racism could ever be.

A fast-paced comedy about slavery is dependent on the caliber of its actors, and the Gloucester Stage production rises to the occasion. As Butler, Ames Adamson (who originated the role at the New Jersey Repertory Company and again Off-Broadway at 59E59TH Theatre) is clearly having the time of his life, practically chewing the scenery. He is the eye of the storm and both the audience and his cast mates know it. Shane Taylor holds his own as Mallory, delicately walking a fine line between enlightened erudition and bondage. And Doug Bowen-Flynn, as the by-the-book West Point graduate Lieutenant Kelly, is a perfect foil for Butler’s more nuanced version of life. His transformation from knee-jerk bigot to color blind humanist is masterfully graceful and poignant.

 

Photo_17-GSC-BENBUTLER-4369

L to R: Lieutenant Kelly: Doug Bowen-Flynn; Shepard Mallory: Shane Taylor; Major General Benjamin Butler: Ames Adamson

 

Some might chafe at the idea of a subject as serious as slavery being handled with a light comedic touch, and in another playwright’s hands, they might be right. In the case of ‘Ben Butler,’ however, Richard Strand has brought home the very serious point that racism is evil and immoral, and let us have a jolly good time nonetheless.

‘Ben Butler’ –Written by Richard Strand; Directed by Joseph Discher; Scenic Design by Greg Trochlil; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl; Props Design by Lauren Corcuera; Sound Design by Joseph Discher. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, 267 E Main St., Gloucester, through August 25. For more information or to buy tickets, visit https://gloucesterstage.com/

‘Private Lives’ a Classy Production of Classic Summer Fare at DTF

TahrO8ql

Rachel Pickup and Shawn Fagan in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

Nothing welcomes light summery breezes like a witty Nöel Coward comedy of manners, and the Dorset Theatre Festival is spot on in its choice of the timeless ‘Private Lives’ to open its 42nd season. “We believe ‘the play’s the thing’ here at Dorset, and this is one of the most fabulous plays of all times- full of wit and sophisticatedly funny. Coward captures the universal humor that sometimes ensues once we lose our minds by falling in love,” said Artistic Director Dina Janis by email.

The plot is deceptively simple. Divorced spouses Elyot (Shawn Fagan) and Amanda (the sublime and worth-the-price-of-admission Rachel Pickup) have remarried and are honeymooning with their respective new spouses, Sybil (Anna Crivelli) and Victor (Hudson Oz). By the divine intervention of Coward’s wicked imagination, they end up in adjacent rooms on the night they are each to start their new lives. When they see each other across their shared balcony’s hedge, the sparks fly and they impulsively flee their hapless new partners to resume what they have idealized as their romantic destiny.

 

l-AhJSEP

Rachel Pickup, Shawn Fagan, Anna Crivelli, and Hudson Oz in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

 

Back at Amanda’s posh Paris apartment, their fiery passion predictably devolves from love to the same incendiary anger from whose ashes desire was restored. Couches practically take flight, ashtrays become bullets and words are poison darts, aimed with years of practiced marksmanship to draw maximum blood. Think Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ or as their tabloid selves (they actually played these roles in 1983 at New York’s Lunt-Fontanne Theater), and you get the picture.

Their aggrieved new spouses track them down, and the hit-and-miss slapstick ensues. By the curtain’s fall, the pendulum has swung back and forth so many times for Amanda and Elyot that it becomes clear they really are meant for each other. Anyone else would have been bedridden with a bad case of vertigo ages ago; these two enfants terribles are not only still standing, but actually relish the prospect of round three.

The production’s shining stars are two: Rachel Pickup as Amanda and Lee Savage’s gorgeous Art Deco sets. Ms. Pickup gives a Broadway-caliber performance (where, coincidentally, she recently appeared at the St. James in Coward’s “Present Laughter” with Kevin Kline). The impossibly willowy actress is all comedic physicality and glamor, delivering her lines and gestures with surgical precision. Hers is not your average summer theater performance and it is as welcome as it is mesmerizing.

 

CfOwOwwb

Anna Crivelli, Shawn Fagan, Hudson Oz, and Rachel Pickup in Noel Coward’s PRIVATE LIVES. Photo by Joey Moro

 

Equally astonishing are the period sets Mr. Savage manages to create in rural Vermont; these too are Broadway worthy. The hotel terraces in Act One are as stunning as they are humorous in their mirror images of floor to ceiling blue draperies and wrought iron balustrades. The details of Act Two’s Paris flat are like a ‘Where’s Waldo” for the audience, complete with Victrola, piano, fainting couch and polar bear skin rug. Asked what was the biggest challenge in mounting this production, Ms. Janis replied without hesitation, “Making the Deco Period come to life on our budget!” Clearly, she succeeded.

Although the second act drags and the rest of the cast pales compared to Ms. Pickup, the production is a theatrical icon whose appeal is as timeless as pink champagne. “The play really gives it all to us, with its sparkling language and the collision of its characters, completely recognizable to a contemporary audience for their passion and for their capacity for selfishness, obstinance and even cruelty,” Director Evan Yionoulis said by email. One can almost hear Nöel Coward whispering, “Touché, darling. Touché.”

‘Private Lives’ – Written by Nöel Coward. Directed by Evan Yionoulis; Set Design: Lee Savage. Lighting Design: Donald Holder. Costume Design: Katherine B. Roth. Sound Design: Jane Shaw. Fight Choreographer: BH Barry.

Through July 6 at Dorset Playhouse, 104 Cheney Road, Dorset, Vt. For more information, visit dorsettheatrefestival.org or call 802-867-2223.

 

 

‘Pride and Prejudice’ Gets A Gender-Bending Contemporary Twist

 

Pride-and-Prejudice-10WEB-RES-Ensemble-1024x683

Cast of Actor’s Shakespeare Project’s ‘Pride & Prejudice. PHOTO CREDIT NILE SCOTT STUDIOS

 

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

Jane Austen, the 19th century author of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘Mansfield Park’ and ‘Emma’ did not hide the ball. Marriage in sexist Regency England is the central theme of all her novels, which she penned under the pseudonym “A Lady.” The laws of coverture, which governed marriage, stripped a wife of all her legal and economic rights, essentially making her a ward of her husband. In the absence of brothers, her family’s fortune would pass to her husband upon her father’s death.

Ironically, a young girl’s sole raison d’être was to secure such a union of legal indentured servitude.

And that is just the predicament the four Bennett daughters are in. Spearheaded by Mrs. Bennett, their storm trooper mother (played beautifully, but for the sometimes screeching exuberance, by Mara Sidmore), the four Bennett sisters are on a crusade: to find a rich husband who will save the family from destitution following the death of Mr. Bennet, whose estate will pass by law to his cousin, the slithery Mr. Collins (more about him later).

 

pride-1024x683

ASP Pride and Prejudice – Doug Lockwood, Mr. Collins; Zoe Laiz, Jane; Anna Bortnick, Lydia; Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Lizzy; Louis Reyes McWilliams, Mary

 

The set (designed by Alexander Woodward) works beautifully to evoke 19th century grand drawing-room country life. The three moving panels with doors provide ample opportunities for entrances, exits and that old standby favorite, slamming doors.

 

The audience meets Mr. Bennet (played by Gabriel Kuttner in a standout performance), the anchor to the Bennett women who copes with his wife’s frenzy over marrying off their daughters by ignoring it. He is the one calm touchstone throughout the production, providing wry relief when Mrs. Bennet threatens to hurl us all over the edge.

 

She approaches prepping her daughters for a ball, where her recon has revealed there will be several eligible bachelors, as she would conduct paramilitary drills. Some of the play’s best lines (“We couldn’t be more poised for a victory,” she tells her husband) and some of the best- choreographed scenes are these preliminary family drills.

 

Each daughter, in turn, approaches the idea of marriage differently. Lizzy (played with solemnness and heart by Lydia Barnett-Mulligan) wants no part of it, either because she refuses to play the game or because she is afraid of making a bad choice. Jane (Zoë Laiz) is aware of both her biological ticking clock and her responsibility as the eldest. Lydia (played with tremendous physical and verbal comedy by a scene-stealing Anna Bortnick, who is equally as impressive in her role as Miss de Bourgh) is 14-years-old and in it for the sport. Mary (Louis Reyes McWilliams, who inexplicably plays her as part Nana-the-dog (from Peter Pan), part Lurch and part omniscient Greek chorus) rounds out the family female tree.

 

The rest of the play follows these four as they bounce from one romantic crisis to the next. As the level of desperation rises (“This is not a game,” Mrs. Bennet warns), even marriage to Mr. Bennet’s distant cousin Mr. Collins, who will inherit the Bennet estate, is considered.

 

As played by Doug Lockwood (and dressed by Costume Designer Haydee Zelideth), Collins is all menace and creepiness, his constantly moving hands itching to reach out and snatch the nearest female flesh within his reach. Lockwood plays the part brilliantly, with gusto and credibility. His is one of the few over-the-top performances that blends seamlessly into the rest of the play.

 

Pride-and-Prejudice-05-1024x683

(Lydia Barnett-Mulligan, Lizzy; Omar Robinson, Darcy

 

Although marriage to Collins would be fine by Mrs. Bennett, the girls put their foot down and so the family future is even more imperiled. Lizzy eventually meets her match in Mr. Darcy (played with gravitas by Omar Robinson), Jane finds love with Mr. Bingley, and Lydia arguably gets whom she deserves. Since Mary’s eligibility for marriage is questionable, Mrs. Bennet can at last rest and Mr. Bennet can get some well-deserved peace and quiet.

 

Many of the actors play multiple roles, including some gender-bending ones. Garbriel Kuttner transforms his girth and baldness into a believable Charlotte Lucas (Lizzy’s best friend who makes the disastrous decision to marry Collins) and Doug Lockwood is brings great physicality to Miss Bingley. Since Mary, as directed, is of questionable species, the fact that she is played by Louis Reyes McWilliams is less noticeable.

 

Under Christopher V. Edwards’ direction, feminist playwright Kate Hamill’s brilliant female-centric adaptation takes on a slightly screwball character that is hit-and-miss. Although Hamill deliberately wrote the play as a farce, some of the slapstick and sight gags work, and some land like a lead balloon. By the end of two and a half hours, most of the freshness has faded.

 

That said, the acting is overall outstanding and the production is light-heated and fun. Hamill’s script is full of incisive and cutting quips, tacitly alluding to the similarities between the 19th and 21st centuries. “The heroines of Austen’s novels are often struggling with how to reconcile the dictates of their consciences with the demands of their society,” Hamill said. “And I think many of us identify with that.” Judging from the laughter and applause at Wednesday’s show, Hamill’s mission was accomplished.

 

For tickets and information, go to: https://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/plays-events/pride-and-prejudice/

‘Pride and Prejudice’ –Written by Kate Hamill; Adapted from the novel by Jane Austen; Directed by Christopher V. Edwards; Choreography by Alexandra Beller; Sound Design by Ian Scot; Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan. Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Balch Arena Theater, 40 Talbot Ave., Medford, through June 29.

 

 

North Shore Music Theatre’s ‘Oklahoma’ Is A Rollicking Kick Off to its 64th Season

 

thumb-nsmt-oklahoma-ensemble-1_2

The cast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s OKLAHOMA! at North Shore Music Theatre thru June 16, 2019. Photos © Paul Lyden

By Shelley A. Sackett

Just when the cold, wet slog of spring 2019 was about to wear down all hope that summer would ever arrive, NSMT comes to the rescue with a first-rate production of the 1943 classic, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s ‘Oklahoma!’ Perfect for theatre-in-the-round staging, this Broadway masterpiece has everything: a snappy, foot-stomping score, impressive choreography and a captivating story that is more complex and bleak than many may remember.

Under the direction of Mark Hartman, the orchestra is spot on. The opening overture is an immediate reminder of all the hits that came out of this show (‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin,” ‘The Surrey with the Fringe on Top,’ ‘I Cain’t Say No,’ ‘People Will Say We’re in Love,’ and, of course,‘Oklahoma!’) and last Wednesday night, the near capacity audience lip synched to almost every song. But when cowboy Curly McLaine (played with a perfect mixture of cockiness and aw-shucks-ma’am by the talented Blake Price) entered the stage astride an actual horse, the crowd predictably went wild with appreciation.

Born into a prosperous German Jewish family in Queens, New York City, composer Rodgers was the son of Mamie and Dr. William Rodgers, a prominent physician who had changed the family name from Rogazinsky. Librettist/lyricist Hammerstein II was also born in New York City.  His father was from a Jewish family, and his mother was the daughter of Scottish and English parents.

“Oklahoma” was their first collaboration and the first of a new genre, the musical play, which they created by melding Rodgers’ sophisticated style of musical comedy with Hammerstein’s innovations in operetta.

The narrative is simple on its face. Set in the Oklahoma territory in the 1900s, the musical lays out the story of two sets of lovers. Curley and the feisty, independent farmer Laurey Williams (played by the gifted Madison Claire Parks, whose dazzling singing is a delicious treat) are as in love as they are stubborn about not admitting their feelings to each other. They are early settlers building new lives on the wild frontier, and their pioneering spirits unsurprisingly clash.

Laurey’s Aunt Eller (played with zest by the buoyant Susan Cella) has some of the script’s best lines as she tries to knock some sense into Laurey and Curley, using every trick she knows short of actually knocking their heads together. The chemistry between the actors feels real, and their voices blend beautifully during their one duet, “People Will Say We’re in Love.”

thumb-nsmt-oklahoma-laurie-curley-1_orig

Madison Claire Parks (Laurey) and Blake Price (Curly).

 

Ado Annie Carnes (the Olive Oyl-like and spectacularly hilarious Melissa Carlile-Price), one of Laurey’s friends, and her boyfriend, cowboy Will Parker (Sean Bell, a terrific tap dancer) are the other couple. Or, at least they were. While Will was away on a trip to Kansas City, Ado Annie has fallen for the peddler Ali Hakim (the fine Cooper Grodin), who is a ladies’ man with zero intention of marrying her. Carlile-Price is a side-splitting enchantress, stealing every scene she is in.

But all is not innocence and trivial entertainment. Meatier topics like patriotism, impending statehood, and a spirited rivalry between the local farmers and cowboys provide a backdrop of danger and excitement. Add to the mix Jud Fry, the creepy farm hand that harbors nefarious designs on Laurey (darkly played by Alex Levin, whose baritone is operatic), and the plot truly thickens.

Mara Newbery Greer’s choreography elevates the show to greater artistic heights. In particular, the tap dancing in “Kansas City” and the dream sequence, “Ballet” (Bella Calafiura is a standout as Dream Laurey), are superb.

If there is any criticism of the production, it is that there is too much of it. At 3 hours, it is uncomfortably long, especially Act I (105 minutes).

Nonetheless, if you’re looking for an evening of thoroughly entertaining, (mostly) light summer fare, “Oklahoma!” fits the bill.

 

‘Oklahoma!’ is presented by North Shore Music Theatre, 62 Dunham Rd., Beverly, through June 16. Visit nsmt.org/ or call 978-232-7200.

 

 

 

‘The Nature Plays’ Bring Mt. Auburn Cemetery to Life in a Spectacular Plein Air Tour de Force

 

Namesakes

Ed Hooperman (as Louis Agassiz), Jacob Oommen Athyal (as Elizabeth Agassiz) and Theresa Hoa Nguyen (as Jane Gray) debate their legacies in “Namesakes.”

 

Reviewed by Shelley A. Sackett

This review first appeared in The Theater Mirror. theatermirror.net/ All photos by Corinne Elicone.

 

Mt. Auburn Cemetery and its rich, natural environment is a heaven-made set for Playwright Patrick Gabridge’s spectacular first set of five site-specific one-act plays, collectively titled, “The Nature Plays.” Each ten-minute play touches on a topic germane to its particular setting in the 174-acre cemetery, which is also an arboretum and National Historic Landmark District.

The plays run through June 9 with another series of five short plays, “The American Plays,” scheduled to run September 14-22.

Gabridge, who is also Mt. Auburn Cemetery’s Artist-in-Residence, chose the topics based on “whatever interested him.” The result is five works, each stunning in its whimsicality, creativity, craftsmanship and depth. They seamlessly blend big-picture topics like global warming and the role the present plays in shaping history and legacy with slapstick and zingy one-liners.

Courtney O’Connor directs and cast members, all members of Actors Equity Association, include: Lisa Tucker, Jacob Athyal, Ed Hoopman, and Theresa Nguyen.

Over the course of the 75-minute production, the audience travels about a mile from site to site with the actors, wandering from pond to gravesite to secret mushroom trove to birding hot spot to sheltered glen. Chairs are set up at each site and there is not a bad seat in the house.

 

Patrick MAC umbrella close up

Patrick Gabridge, Playwright and Mt. Auburn Artist-in-Residence

 

Last Saturday at 5 pm, the stroll through the park-like setting was as magical as the plays themselves. Gabridge was on hand to offer bug spray and a brief introduction to the 35 people lucky enough to have scored a ticket to the sold out show.

The five plays are: “Hot Love in the Moonlight,” about the strange mating habits of spotted salamanders (“but it’s also a play about choosing to have children in a dangerous world,” Gabridge told Theater Mirror); “Namesakes,” which shows the 19th century naturalists Asa Gray and Louis Agassiz confronting the impermanence of their legacies; “Sworn to Secrecy,” a peek at the hidden world of mushroom hunters; “Cerulean Blue,” about the inner lives of bird watchers; and “Love and Loss in the Glade,” a play about healing and loss told through the words of three trees.

 

Hot Love

Jacob Oommen Athyal (as spotted salamander Jeremy) courts Theresa Hoa Nguyen (as spotted salamander Samantha) in “Hot Love in the Moonlight.”

 

Along with a natural soundtrack of chirps and tweets, bird recordings of warblers, orioles and warbling vireos chime in during the bird-watching play.

 

The Nature Plays - Cerulean Blue2

Ed Hooperman (as deaf birdwatcher Dan) and Lisa Tucker (as blind birdwatcher Leanna) share their observations in “Cerulean Blue.”

 

Each play provides both charm and a deeper message, and the actors clearly revel in delivering their clever lines. “So much life in a place dedicated to the dead….I never expected to feel so much less lonely here,” one bird watcher tells another.

Playwright Patrick Gabridge is an award-winning writer of historical and contemporary stage plays, novels, audio plays, and screenplays. His short plays have been produced more 1,000 times in theaters and schools in 14 different countries around the world and appear in various anthologies. His recent site-specific works include “Blood on the Snow” and “Cato & Dolly” for The Bostonian Society/Old State House, and “Both/And: A Quantum Physics Play” for the MIT Museum.

In 2018, Gabridge launched Plays In Place, a new company that works in partnership with museums, historic sites, and other cultural institutions to develop and produce site-specific theatrical plays and presentations to help engage, entertain, and enlighten visitors in new and vibrant ways.  Gabridge’s Mount Auburn plays are presented in partnership with Plays in Place as one of the company’s inaugural projects.

The Theater Mirror caught up with Gabridge, who answered these questions.

TM: How did you decide on the topics for “The Nature Plays?”

G: One of the cool things about being artist-in-residence at Mount Auburn Cemetery is the freedom we get to choose what to create, and also the richness of the history and environment of the place. There are 100,000 people buried there, but it’s also a world-class arboretum, an important stop on the migratory bird pathway. It has lots of interesting wildlife and some very smart programs to get people involved with science and nature.

As I got to know the Cemetery, it quickly became apparent to me that I’d have to write about BOTH history and nature. There was just so much to write about, so many different elements, that I decided to write two series of plays. And even then, The Nature Plays cover quite a bit of ground. The plays themselves also have different styles and takes on their subjects. I love the ability to experiment and play, and I think the audience is going to have a good time, too.

 

TM: What are the challenges of working/performing in an outdoor environment? What are some of the rewards?

G: The hardest thing about outdoor work is unpredictability, especially around weather. We’re fortunate at Mount Auburn in that we have an indoor rain backup space, at Story Chapel. You also have a lot less control over passersby, random environmental noise, etc., that you don’t have to worry about in the controlled space of an indoor theatre.

However, the rewards are great. We get a vividly real, three-dimensional environment, better than any set we could ever create. In Mount Auburn, we get an incredibly beautiful venue in which to perform and it comes with great spatial depth that we can use.

One thing I love about site-specific work like this is that it’s super intimate—often the audiences and performers are quite close. The formal barrier that exists between actors and audience in a traditional space is much more permeable, much less rigid. This enables more engagement, and I don’t necessarily mean the actors are talking to the audience, but there’s a sense of connection that’s deeper. This kind of experience often has great appeal for people who are less comfortable in a formal theatre environment. There’s a sense of shared experience, even among the audience themselves, that creates a memorable and engaging event.

 

TM: What do you hope audiences will take away from the experience?

G: I hope they’ll see Mount Auburn a little differently than they did before. That the specific spots where we perform will have a new resonance for them. I hope that they’ll be drawn to visit again, and when they do, they’ll look at the birds and trees and the place with a new curiosity, and also with a sense of belonging. They’ll know something about this place, and I hope they’ll feel like they’re a part of it, and it’s a part of them, in some small way.

 

TM: What initially inspired you to develop site-specific works?

G: I started creating site-specific plays in Colorado, in 1993. I had co-founded Chameleon Stage, with a bunch of other writers and a director friend, and we had no money, but wanted to experiment with creating new short plays. So we made plays for wild spaces in the mountains of Colorado, just west of Denver. It was called ‘Theatre in the Wild.’ It was so much fun we did more of them, toured a tiny bit (to Aspen and Golden), and then did Asphalt Adventures, a set of parking lot plays. I learned a lot about creating and producing site-specific plays.

TM: Anything you want to add?

G: I hope people will also keep an eye out for the second set of Mount Auburn plays, which will be in September.

THE NATURE PLAYS (30 May to 9 June)

Mount Auburn Cemetery, 580 Mount Auburn Street, Cambridge, MA

617-607-1980 or mountauburn.org

 

Stellar ‘The Return’ marks Israeli Stage’s final production

by Shelley A. Sackett

 

“I think I may have done something wrong,” the Jewish Israeli character known as Her says to the Palestinian Israeli character known as Him. “I want to understand and make it right.”

“The Return,” the provocative and extraordinary two-character play performed by Israeli Stage at the Boston Center for the Arts Calderwood Pavilion through May 19, slowly unravels the mystery of love and betrayal that underlies the relationship between these two very human beings trapped within a politically complicated country. Their backstory is a roadmap that examines Israel’s establishment and its contemporary social and political order through a Palestinian lens.

Because it is impossible to avoid spoilers in a full-throated review, broad brushstrokes must suffice. The writing (Palestinian-Israeli Hanna Eady and American Edward Mast), acting (Philana Mia and Nael Nacer) and directing (Guy Ben-Aharon) are brilliant. The set design (Cristina Todesco) and lighting (Jeff Adelberg) are powerful, yet unobtrusive, subtly evoking an interrogation room. And the post-performance moderated dialog last Saturday evening was as thought-provoking and engaging as the play itself.

The 65-minute intermission-less show is a product of the ongoing 20-year collaboration between the Seattle-based playwrights, who met through mutual friends soon after Mast returned from his first trip to Israel. The two talked a bit that night. The next day Hanna asked Mast if he would be interested in teaming up on a project he had in mind. “Aside from being a good playwright, Ed is an activist for human rights,” Eady said.

That project became their first play, “Sahmatah: Memory of Stones,” based on interviews with refugees from the Palestinian village destroyed during the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. In 1998, it was produced in Arabic in the Masrahal-Midan Theater in Haifa, and on the ruins of the village of Sahmatah in the Upper Galilee.

Eady, who holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts in theater from the University of Wisconsin and a Master of Fine Arts in drama and directing from the University of Washington in Seattle, grew up in Buqayah, a small village similar to Sahmatah, also in the Upper Galilee region of Israel. “A mixed population of Palestinian Druze, Christians, Muslims and Palestinian Jews lived there together for thousands of years. In 1948, Israel was established and the harmony of their life in the village was destroyed,” Eady said. A large part of his family fled and are now scattered around the world in five continents.

His intent in writing “The Return” is twofold. “I would like the audience to feel the tragic reality of daily life of the Palestinian people, to see they are deprived of the most simple and natural thing in life, which is normal human contact,” he said. He also wants theatergoers to notice the play’s message of hope and spread it. “A good play changes attitudes and motivates the audience to take action,” he added.

Mast, who grew up in California, was “a very typical uninformed passive supporter of Israel” when he befriended a Palestinian coworker. “Through their eyes, I began to see things differently,” he said. He and Hanna have much in common. They both act and direct, and are compatible personally, politically and artistically. “We know a lot of beloved people who are in danger every day because of a system that places one people in power over another.”

When Guy Ben-Aharon founded Israeli Stage in 2010 as a 19-year-old Emerson College student, his goal was to expose American audiences to Israeli plays. Over nine seasons, the company has become known for its commitment to diversity, empathy and building community bridges through shared dialogue. “It’s so easy to exist in echo chambers, and have our own thoughts and opinions regurgitated for us. It is much more challenging to confront dualities and a multiplicity of experiences,” the Israeli native said.

“The Return” marks the last play of his company’s final season, and Ben-Aharon is “really glad” to share this Palestinian-Israeli perspective on the reality in Israel and the Palestinian territories. “It is the very first time we will have done that in nine seasons’ worth of work. We’re not trying to change hearts and minds as much as we’re trying to open them. Just a little bit.”

The Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts is located at 527 Tremont St., Boston. For tickets, visit IsraeliStage.com or call 617-933-8600.

Still Standing: A Musical Survival Guide’

By Shelley A. Sackett

While most of her 21-year-old colleagues were busy planning their post-college lives, Anita Hollander was undergoing chemo and radiation therapies after her first bout of cancer in her left leg.

When she returned to Carnegie Mellon University for her senior year, she played a cabaret evening of songs by popular singers. A favorite teacher who was in the audience changed the trajectory of her life when she challenged Hollander to use her recent life experience to write and perform her own material instead.

Hollander wrote “The Choice,” about the options one makes when faced with a deadly disease. By the time her cancer reappeared five years later in 1977 – this time necessitating amputation – Hollander was well on her way to creating her show, “Still Standing: A Musical Survival Guide to Life’s Catastrophes.”

The solo 15-song cabaret chronicles Hollander’s story, from her initial diagnosis to the post-amputation continuation of her career as a musical theatrical performer. Each song, packed with humor, intelligence, and musicality, describes resources that helped her endure and persist.

“Sense of humor, great imagination, chutzpah, perspective, family, love, children, art – there’s nothing you have to buy or get,” said Hollander by phone from her Manhattan home. “Anyone who sees the show can use these tools to get through difficult times, obstacles, whatever is in front of them.”

“Still Standing” has played at the Kennedy Center, the White House, Off-Broadway, and in theatres around the country.

The New Repertory Theatre at the Mosesian Center for the Arts in Watertown will present it from Feb. 9 through March 3 during Jewish Disability Awareness, Acceptance and Inclusion Month.
Since 2009, every February has represented a unified effort among Jewish organizations worldwide to raise awareness and foster inclusion of people with disabilities. Last February, the Ruderman Family Foundation helped finance a performance of the show at Kerem Shalom, an inclusion congregation in Concord.

Hollander is as much a disability activist as a performer. “My whole career is playing roles that were not necessarily meant to be disabled, but I happened to be playing them with one leg,” she said. As national chair of the SAG-AFTRA Performers with Disabilities committee, Hollander keeps a “watchdog scorecard” of disabled people showing up in every form of media. While she thinks film still “woefully” lags behind, she is encouraged by the great strides theater and TV have made over the last 10 years.

Hollander and her three sisters grew up in Cleveland, the daughters of a part-time cantor who organized them into a four-part harmony group that “started singing before we could speak,” she said, doing shows at temple and singing at services. When Hollander married, she joined the Village Temple in New York, where she has been children’s choir director for 23 years.

She and the children collaborate to write songs about holidays and Tikkun Olam (“repair the world”). The kids came up with the idea for “Share the World,” a song that features them saying “welcome” in 20 languages that represent countries where Jews live (it’s available on YouTube).

“Working with the children’s choir has been one of the best things in my life,” she said.

Asked whether she could envision anyone else playing her part in such an intimate autobiographical piece, Hollander said she is writing a new show, “Spectacular Falls,” with the idea that someone else could perform it. However, she added that she is about to do 26 performances in a row of “Still Standing” without an understudy.

“It’s like being out on a wire without a net on one leg,” she said with a laugh.

The Mosesian Center for the Arts is located at 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. For tickets, visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.

Erasing gender and race barriers puts a new face on ‘1766’

32__1776

Bobbie Steinbach (as Benjamin Franklin) and Benjamin Evett (as John Adams). [All photos by Andy Brilliant/Brilliant Photography]

By Shelley A. Sackett

 

Digging deep into the history of the United States reveals a largely unrecognized fact: Jews played a role in the events that launched the American Revolution. Like their fellow early settlers, they were divided in their loyalties, but there is no denying they had skin in the game.

The most famous revolutionary Jew was Polish-born Haym Salomon, a successful foreign securities dealer who helped finance the American cause. Francis Salvador was the first Jew elected to public office in the colonies. He was also the first Jew killed in the American Revolutionary War, fighting in 1776 on the South Carolina frontier. Abigail Minis was a Savannah, Ga., businesswoman and landowner who helped supply provisions for the revolutionary forces.

 

Don’t hold your breath, however, waiting for these unsung Jewish patriots to appear in The New Rep Theatre’s production of the 1969 Broadway hit, “1776.” The Tony-award-winning musical now onstage in Watertown focuses exclusively on the tumultuous political machinations that led to the signing of the Declaration of Independence on July 4. Our Jewish revolutionaries are not even a footnote.

 

173__1776

The cast of 1776

 

Nonetheless, co-directors Austin Pendleton and Kelli Edwards (the same team that breathed new life into the thread-worn “Fiddler on the Roof”) manage to shake things up by launching the play into the 21st century and casting it as gender and race neutral. Women play men, men play women, and the racial diversity on stage rivals that of “Hamilton.”

The strategy is, for the most part, clever and effective. The always-outstanding Bobbie Steinbach is dazzling as Ben Franklin. She steals every scene she is in (which is most of them) with her impeccable timing and gestures. It also doesn’t hurt that her character’s lines are the script’s best crafted.

The three-hour show takes place during a long, steamy Philadelphia summer. The Second Continental Congress, an unruly, exhausted and petulant group of men representing the original 13 colonies, meets day after day in a stifling room ‒ the windows can’t be opened or the chamber would fill with flies. Front and center on their agenda is deciding whether to declare national independence and unite formally in rebellion against British rule or remain separate sovereign colonies.

John Adams of Massachusetts is desperate to persuade this ill-tempered and motley crew that time is running out. If Congress doesn’t act now as a united front to throw off Great Britain’s tyranny, he fears General George Washington’s ragtag and outnumbered army will suffer crushing and lethal defeat.

The stumbling block is that Adams (in a spot on performance by Benjamin Evett) is, even by his own admission, obnoxious and disliked. Few take him or his ideas seriously. As the days pass, the room temperature and tempers flare, threatening to derail Adams’ dream. “It’s a revolution. We’re going to have to offend someone!” he bellows as yet another delegate proposes a self-serving amendment.

The script, based on the book by Peter Stone, is at times a starchy history lesson, unwavering in its emphasis on facts and chronology. The lackluster score and competent but uninspired choreography and lighting do not lighten the load. Although the audience leaves chock-full of knowledge, the lingering aftertaste is of a snack chosen for nutritional value rather than flavor.

White men comprised the real Second Congress. In this modern version, half the delegates are women, dressed as ‒ and playing the roles of ‒ men. Although initially distracting, the novelty soon wears off and everyone becomes a co-equal delegate. Suddenly, what really matters are the words they speak, not how they look or sound.

 

The directors succeed in creating a truly representative body, one that is color blind and gender neutral, united by the simple commonality of humanness. Basking in that possibility, even if it is only make believe, is well worth the price of admission.

 

Through Dec. 30 at the Mosesian Center for the Arts, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown. Tickets are $22 (student) to $72. Visit newrep.org or call 617-923-8487.

 

 

Israeli Stage presents blistering, sensual drama ‘The Last Act’

 

Guy Ben-Aharon, c:o the director, photographer Esra Rotthoff

Director Guy Ben-Aharon

 

By Shelley A. Sackett

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict seems to be an unavoidable topic of discussion: in the news, in the gym, even in the produce aisle. From May 18 through June 1, the conversation will move from side bar to center stage when the Israeli Stage presents the world premiere production of award-winning playwright Joshua Sobol’s latest play, “The Last Act” at Martin Hall in the Calderwood Pavilion.

 

Known for controversial work that challenges and provokes, Sobol’s newest work boldly addresses a difficult question: once society legitimizes branding and treating a group as the “other,” is there any hope the two sides can ever see each other as anything other than an enemy?

 

Playwright Joshua Sobol

 

Crafted as a play-within-a-play, the blistering and sensual drama centers on Gilly, a Jewish-Israeli unemployed actress leading a dull, settled life, and Djul, a Palestinian actor. The two share a passion to put on theater that is risky and matters. They mount an adaptation of August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” a play about an aristocratic woman and a senior servant, Jean, whose mutual attraction leads to tragedy.

 

Like the characters they play, Gilly and Djul feel a magnetic pull towards each other despite the cultural, political and social barriers that separate them. The plot thickens when Gilly’s husband, Ethan, a Jewish-Israeli intelligence officer, receives a surveillance assignment that involves spying on his wife and her Palestinian co-star, whom Ethan’s boss falsely assumes is a Hamas operative.

 

New York-based actress Annelise Lawson is just getting to know her character, Gilly, and she likes what she is discovering. “Her genius is her intuition; she picks up on everything. She is unabashedly assertive in pursuing her loves and doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” she said. “I’m a little envious of how she navigates her world.”

 

At one point, Gilly growls, “Theatre should be dangerous, or else it should not be!” Lawson agrees. “To get along in our daily lives, we have to edit ourselves constantly, making sure we express our opinions in just the right way. Theatre is one of the few places where we can drop the social mask and take the temperature of our culture. The act of telling the truth is dangerous.”

 

Sobol sees many parallels between “Miss Julie,” with its irrational and rigid focus on impenetrable social class barriers, and the situation in Israel. “The Israeli-Palestinian ‘mess’ has long abandoned the territory of sound reason,” he said, pointing out that the mutual prosperity Palestinians and Jews have experienced should have convinced the two communities they can only gain from a peaceful acceptance of each other. “But instead of thriving together in peace, the Hosseini belligerent leadership of the Palestinian community opted for a forceful showdown.”

 

The Israeli Stage’s mission is to share the diversity and vitality of Israeli theatre, and Director and Producing Artistic Director Guy Ben-Ahron considers “The Last Act” a perfect fit. “While the play is inherently Israeli, it is utterly universal. The peril of the surveillance state is a global phenomenon. The option for society to choose fear or hope is one that faces all Americans today,” he said.

 

Artistically, he appreciates that the play-within-a-play structure distorts the lines of reality, inviting the audience to tune into two realities simultaneously. “It blurs the lines of comedy and tragedy- it’s funny, it’s sharp and it’s poignant. I love the playfulness of the script,” he said.

 

Nightly dialogues will follow each performance, providing an opportunity for communal reflection. “Our vision is to create an opportunity to listen, inquire and reflect deeply at a time when our world suffers mightily from divisions and distrust. We’re not trying to change hearts and minds as much as we’re trying to open them. Just a little bit,” Ben-Ahron said.

 

For more information or to buy tickets, visit israelistage.com or call (617) 933-8600.